JANAKPUR - Towards the end of the Rana oligarchy, this religious town and its surrounding areas emerged as a centre of oppositional politics.
The Nepali Congress, which was instrumental in mobilising the movement, consolidated its position here through the 60s. Since then, the larger Mahottari area-Mahottari, Dhanusha, Sarlahi-had been the heartland of the party's support base.
Not any more. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) has done more damage to the Congress than the monarchists, the Marxists, the Leninists, the Maoists, and all other opportunists put together. A mere call for a three-day banda by the MJF forced Girija Prasad Koirala to cancel his big speech here.
What has changed to give a new forum so much influence? Why is the NC losing ground everyday? Clearly there were various local, regional, national, and international forces at play. But there was seething anger.
Kameshwar Yadav runs a posh shop selling televisions and refrigerators on Station Road. Like most shopkeepers, he detests bandas, doesn't differentiate between his pahadi and madhesi customers, and would stay away from politics if he could help it. But after the Tarai Uprising he has noticed changes the MJF has brought in his life. Earlier, his pahadi customers would ask in a bullying tone: "O bhaiya, how much do you sell this for?" The language of enquiry is now much more polite: "Sahuji, how much does this cost?"
NC leaders had failed to read accurately the quest for respect among the emerging madhesi elite. The MJF gauged this correctly and is trying to capitalise on it. It's too early to say whether reluctant radicals like Kameshwar will be tempted by the identity politics of Upendra Yadav, but their disillusionment with the likes of Ram Baran Yadav and Bimalendra Nidhi, and with the NC leadership is conspicuous.
The structure of the NC in these districts does not in the least reflect the region's changed political economy. Although agriculture continues to be the tarai's mainstay, a class of migrant workers-dismissed as 'Malaysian-lahures' by pahadi landlords-has emerged and wants social respect commensurate with its economic muscle. The NC, the UML, the Maoists, the RPP, and even Sadbhabana failed to notice that restless youth from Qatar, Korea, or Malaysia lahure families were looking for dignity, and willing to pledge political loyalty to those who'd give it to them. That's what the MJF mobilised.
But identity politics gives rise to contradictory aspirations. The marginalised want recognition, but also want to be mainstreamed. Their desire to get into the establishment is stronger than their anger against it. And once the rage is exhausted, issues of ideology, agenda, and leadership again come to the fore. And here the MJF will lose out because it is basically a ragtag band of party-hoppers, political has-beens, frustrated technocrats, and ideological speculators. The Forum has created a political vacuum that it will not be able to fill anytime soon.
The Tarai Uprising had such broad support precisely because its mission didn't clash with party affiliations. That situation has changed after the postponement of the constituent assembly elections and the possibility that the MJF will emerge as an independent political party.
Longtime supporters of the rightwing parties of Surya Bahadur, Pashupati Shamsher and Rabindra Nath have gone back to their respective flocks. Diehard UML loyalists have formed their own madhesi wing. The Maoists already have the Madhesi Mukti Morcha. Sadbhabana's traditional base remains intact. The biggest loser in the contest for spheres of influence in the tarai has been the NC.
And this weakening of moderates will haunt the intellectuals of this town who initially thought that the MJF would help check Maoist influence in the Madhes.